Fate is no respecter of heroes. The record tells of many airmen who survived extraordinary feats of valor in combat, only to be struck down by forces over which they had no control. One of the most poignant tales is that of Lt. Col. Leon Vance, a 1939 graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point.
Vance spent his first three years after flying training as an instructor, squadron commander, and director of flying. He was marked as a young officer with a future. His supervisors commented regularly on his ability as a pilot and his inspirational leadership, which were apparent in every unit in which he served.
After B-24 Liberator transition in 1943, Vance, now a lieutenant colonel, was assigned to the new 489th Bombardment Group as deputy commander. He moved with that group to Molesworth Airfield in the UK in the spring of 1944. The group flew its first mission on May 30. For the next few days, it pounded German fortifications on the northwest coast of France in diversionary attacks that helped tie down enemy forces north of the beaches in Normandy where the Allies landed on June 6, 1944.
The day before the invasion, Vance, flying his second mission, led the group in an attack on heavily defended coastal positions near Wimereaux, France, a few miles south of the Belgian border. As he approached the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by flak. A series of bursts knocked out three of the four engines, killed the pilot, and wounded several crew members, including Vance, whose right foot was almost severed, left hanging by only a tendon. Vance, who had been standing behind the pilots, ordered the attack to be completed with only one engine still turning. Only then did he apply a tourniquet to his leg with the help of the radar operator.
Vance could see that the B-24 was approaching a stall, with the one operating engine about to fail. He struggled to an upright position near the copilot, his right foot caught behind the seat, and took control of the aircraft. When the faltering engine’s propeller had been feathered, he put the bomber, with a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay, into a glide, and headed for the coast of England across the Strait of Dover. As they approached land, Vance ordered the crew to bail out, but, on being told that there was a wounded man in the rear unable to jump, he stayed with the bomber. He would ditch, giving the man in the rear a chance to survive.
Since Vance could not free his virtually severed foot, he flew the B-24 from the floor of the cockpit, using only ailerons and elevators and judging altitude by what little he could see through a side window.
The B-24 was not an easy aircraft to fly under ideal conditions. Early on, it had been thought that a Liberator could not be ditched successfully. Nevertheless, in pain and flying under the most difficult conditions, Vance splashed down with the big bomber nearly intact. It was a remarkable feat of piloting, probably never equaled in the history of bomber operations.
The B-24 began to sink almost immediately. Vance was pinned by, the upper turret, which had crashed down during the ditching, and by his shattered foot, still caught behind the copilot’s seat. As the bomber slipped beneath the waves, an unexplained explosion completely severed his foot and blew him out of the aircraft and away from the wreckage. After clinging for a few moments to a piece of floating debris, he mustered enough strength to inflate his life vest and began searching for the crewman he thought was in or near the remains of the bomber. Finally giving up the fruitless search, Vance started to swim toward the coast. Nearly an hour later, he was plucked from the water by an air-sea rescue craft.
Following preliminary surgery in England, Vance, who had triumphed over almost unimaginable odds, was flown by air-evac to the States for further treatment. Then tragedy struck. Somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland, the C-54 carrying Vance disappeared. No trace of the aircraft was ever found.
Vance was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944.” Today, Vance AFB at Enid, Okla., Vance’s birthplace, commemorates this valiant man who risked his life for others, only to lose it in a bitterly ironic catastrophe. Fate is, indeed, no respecter of heroes.
Published September 1989. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.